Boys State delivers a thrilling look at young politicians

This film focuses on how politics shape people.
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In 1934, the Illinois Department of the American Legion created a program aimed at getting young men interested in politics. By 1940, the program, known as Boys State, spread to Texas, where the biggest iteration of the original idea still operates annually. The Apple Original Film and A24 release Boys State follows participants in the 2018 convention as they, along with nearly 1,000 other boys, attempt to build a representative government from the ground up.

Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the documentary primarily focuses on the Governor Elections, held on the final night of the week-long program. The boys are divided into two political parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists, upon arrival and from there go through a similar process to how real American Presidential elections are held. There are candidates, speeches, and primaries followed by touring campaigns with more speeches, and finally the election. The only thing missing, really, are debates between party candidates. 

As non-stop as the week of Boys State is, McBaine and Moss spent three months prior to the event scouting subjects across Texas, and their hard work pays off. The main subjects of the film are Ben (who becomes the Federalist Party Chair), Robert (a Nationalist Party Governor candidate), Steven (another Nationalist Party Governor candidate), and Rene (who McBain and Moss didn’t scout but rather met at the event after his unexpected election to the Nationalist Party Chair). Each of these four boys have wildly different backgrounds and political beliefs, but their passion for Boys State and politics in general make it hard for viewers to focus on anything else. At the start of the film, Ben even calls himself a “political junkie,” as he shows off a talking Ronald Reagan toy. 

Boys State feels both like a sports film and a political thriller simultaneously. At 1 hour 49 minutes, the film is surprisingly short, considering all the content of the week that could’ve been included. According to McBain and Moss, an early cut of the film sat somewhere around five hours. So, the fact that the movie is able to pack a punch in the way that it does while remaining succinct is an impressive display of filmmaking. While perhaps more exploration of other aspects of Boys State could be desired, the sheer intensity of the film makes up for any lack of depth about the event itself.

Therein lies the heart of the film: the movie isn’t as much about Boys State, the week-long civic program, but rather it’s about the way in which politics molds people. At the start of the film, there’s already a divide between participants who want to get elected solely for the fame versus those who hope to stand up for their beliefs. As the week wears on, those same participants start to change their beliefs in favor of getting the vote, smear campaigns are launched that have little to do with actual political stances, messages of unity become less realistic, and emotions run high.

Unexpectedly, Boys State, while focusing on non-professional politicians, brings to light both the dirtiness and opposing hopefulness of the American Political system. It’s poignant for this moment leading up to the 2020 Presidential Election and will engage viewers regardless of political interest levels. 

Boys State is an Apple Original Films and A24 release, now available on Apple TV+.

This is a selection from the Oct. 07 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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